Hedonism and Happiness – Saying goodby to the office for 3 months

I’ve been back at the office for several months and while this post was written in March of 2014- it is still worth reading today.

When I announced that I was going to China for three months unexpected things happened:  I was provided three copies of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love; invited to lunch with the Ladies (or ‘girls’ as mature women now say); gifted with Danielle Laporte’s The Desire Map (how do you want to feel today?); and told by both men and women alike that I was embarking on a spiritual journey wherein I would return a new woman with new found happiness.  I floated in the well intentioned encouragement for a few weeks and then found myself cringing every time I heard the words ‘happiness’, ‘pleasure’, ‘journey’, ‘enlightenment’ and ‘rediscover’.  When a woman presented me with a pretty little bag filled with Eat Pray Love lip gloss designed by Lancome (for whom Julia Roberts, star of the movie, is a spokesperson) I almost gave her the finger.

Implied in this goodhearted support from my community was the notion that Jinx needed to be fixed and that I was lost, miserable, unsatisfied and disgruntled in the life that I was living.  There is some truth to this and I confess to kvetching at great length about the mundane business tasks that consume my hours and the lack of stimulating and intellectual activities that could engage and enliven me.  I confess to feeling weary from decades of struggles and stress and wondering how I could have abandoned so many of my dreams.  Perhaps I had whined too many times.  Perhaps I did require a make-over and the good life was waiting to blossom, even in my elder years.  Perhaps I did need to eat, pray and love.

I remained gracious towards my supporters, recognizing that I live in a corner of the world where few people would consider leaving their country for any reason other than embarking on a cruise through the Caribbean or sipping tropical fruit drinks at a resort in Cozumel.  It was when recipients of my business emails started suggesting self-help books and signing off with ‘Love’ that it registered how deeply something was wrong.  I suddenly felt surrounded by delusional people and discovered that I abhorred the pursuit of happiness, didn’t buy into hedonism and knew in my heart of hearts that priv-lit insulted my intelligence.  To insure that I wasn’t just another judgmental elitist, I succumbed and read Eat Pray Love.  Damn.

Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia is a 2006 memoir by American author Elizabeth Gilbert.  The feminist magazine Bitch published a critical review called “Eat, Pray, Spend- Priv-lit and the new, enlightened American dream”.  Priv-lit, as Bitch defines it, is “literature or media whose expressed goal is one of spiritual, existential, or philosophical enlightenment contingent upon women’s hard work, commitment, and patience, but whose actual barriers to entry are primarily financial. Should its consumers fail, the genre holds them accountable for not being ready to get serious, not “wanting it” enough, or not putting themselves first, while offering no real solutions for the astronomically high tariffs—both financial and social—that exclude all but the most fortunate among us from participating.”

The book remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 187 weeks and was turned into a film and a merchandizing machine selling clothing, tour packages, fragrances, teas and prayer beads- all for the purpose of making women feel young, beautiful, exotic and adventurous…and did I mention enlightened?  It even has a Chinese edition.

I do not desire to be young, exotic nor beautiful and I rather enjoy being older, overweight and ordinary –so please do not try and provide me a gateway to happiness or tell me pleasure or prosperity is the only intrinsic good.  I do indeed have a privileged status: I am white, educated and skilled enough to know I will probably always have food and shelter and a three month trip to China is certainly an opportunity I do not take lightly.  I am addicted to reading but prefer a great novel that will offer complexity of the ethical and emotional life of its characters than a spiritual self-help that gives me 100 affirmations that will change my life.  I am also wizened enough not to buy into the positive-psychology movement and the Prosperity Gospel that has spread like an international virus, infecting our very souls.  For me, seeking happiness is a cruel demand.

Until recent history, happiness was simply a matter of luck.  It wasn’t even a value, much less an inalienable right.  Now happiness and prosperity courses are offered at distinguished universities and there is a burgeoning industry of professional counselors, scientists, spiritualists, authors and New Agers all telling us that there is a secret to happiness and a mystical key that will unlock our better inner-self and lead us to the prosperity we all deserve.  Yes.  I’ve read my share of spiritual self-help books and danced Sufi-like in circles for hours on end and I admit that I’ve dappled with the obsession of finding myself.  But now it is all sounding rather smug, unctuous and entirely too entwined in consumerism and economic manipulation.  It sounds as if it is all about ‘me’.

The ancient Chinese concept closest to happiness is fu. Inscribed on oracle bones during the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th-11th century BC), it meant “to fill a wine jug at the altar and provide sustenance for a god”.  In the Shang Shu, or The Book of Documents, a compilation of historical documents from before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) Fu was described as “longevity, prosperity, health, peace, virtue and a comfortable death”.  This notion of happiness in death crossed all cultures.  Happiness was something one got to experience only in death, after leading a virtuous, and probably hard life.  The words for happiness in both ancient Greek—eudaimonia—and Indo-European languages include an equivalent for “luck.” In English, it’s happ, or chance—as in happenstance.  Linguistically, being happy means being lucky.

Yet the pursuit of happiness, enlightenment and prosperity fascinates me and I know that I can momentarily be lured into its promise of living happily ever after as well as the next person.  Self-help literature, religions teaching that Jesus wants you to be rich and an obsession with wellness have grabbed our imaginations for decades.  Everyone from the United Nations on down is measuring an economy’s success based on happiness.  Yet when psychologists try to measure the relative happiness of nations, they surprisingly find that both China and the US are surprisingly low on the list.  Despite the huge industries we have built on selling happiness and positivity, it seems we have failed.

Recently a friend informed me he was a hedonist.  Hedonistic theories claim that pleasures and pains are the only things of ultimate importance and that the right action is the one that brings the actor the most net pleasure.  As a result, my friend strives for immediate pleasure and tries to avoid as much pain as is possible.  I am oversimplify his views (he is quite sophisticated at explaining hedonic history) but remain bewildered at his beliefs.  If I were to embrace pleasure as the only source of intrinsic value in my life I would have little to value in my existence. In truth, I value the pain that I have experienced in the course of my life and I appreciate the continual up and down of both my experiences and the feelings that accompany them.

Pleasure is that short term emotional (and frequently chemical) hit that makes us “feel” a certain way in a certain moment. Experiencing pleasure is something most of us wish for others, but it may not have much to do with our mental health in the long run.  I have known plenty of folks who need these pleasure hits habitually and require more and more of them to re-create the original feeling.  There’s a word for it, the “hedonic treadmill.” Hedonism meets science, addiction and adaptation.

Author Jonathon Fields questions, “If making music or art or connecting with people I adore gives me that instant hedonic dopamine hit that makes me feel lit up and makes me want to do more and more, is that not okay? Is that not happiness? Can it not lead to meaning?”

Some researchers explain that the hedonic treadmill is a characteristic associated with happiness where the source of happiness ultimately wanes in its ability to actually make the individual happy. This trait of happiness is most often associated with hedonistic sources of happiness, such as new purchases that first bring an increased sense of wellbeing but eventually lose their shimmer.  After all, how many purses must one buy?  Despite our attempts to seek pleasure, this research tells us we are destined to maintain the same level of general satisfactions throughout our lives, regardless of our choices.  Yet other research differs and shows that personal choices we make about our partners, how we spend our time and what we prioritize can affect our levels of satisfaction in life.  If we focus on experience instead of consumption we tend to feel happier and attitudes, like cultivating gratitude, appear to assist us.

Cultural fraud, the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ is integral to capitalism but it can also play havoc with social and psychological realities.  Pleasure minus pain makes no mathematical sense to me.  Can an authentic life be lived without experiencing contentment, delight, elation, exultation, gratification, gratitude, joy, love, relief, tranquility, as well as agitation, agony, anguish, anxiety, boredom, depression, desolation, despair, grief, guilt, hatred, and horror?  Is end-gaining for happiness a recipe for a meaningful life?  I don’t think so.  I prefer the counsel from BRIGHT-SIDED: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich:

I do not write this in a spirit of sourness or personal disappointment of any kind, nor do I have any romantic attachment to suffering as a source of insight or virtue. On the contrary, I would like to see more smiles, more laughter, more hugs, more happiness and, better yet, joy. In my own vision of utopia, there is not only more comfort, and security for everyone — better jobs, health care, and so forth — there are also more parties, festivities, and opportunities for dancing in the streets. Once our basic material needs are met — in my utopia, anyway — life becomes a perpetual celebration in which everyone has a talent to contribute. But we cannot levitate ourselves into that blessed condition by wishing it. We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.

I am off to China without any of my three copies of Eat Pray Love.  I intend to eat plenty but I do not expect to find God or romantic love.  I am leaving with a more honest appreciation of myself and a kinder reflection on the choices and actions of my life.  I will walk the streets of Ningbo as a realist, depressed in moments and exhilarated in others.  I will refuse to be delusional.- Jinx